The Magic of Mom and Dad Celebrating 60 Years Together!

Diana & BobThis year is already turning out to be a positive and joyful year. Last week my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. It is hard to imagine that so many years have passed, but not hard to imagine that my parents are together and in love after all these years. Here is their story. At least here is their story as they told it to me many, many years ago. I could ask them now to repeat it to me, but what’s the fun of that? I prefer the version that I have cultivated over the years in my head. I am sure that I have at least some of it right.

My dad went to MIT as part of the GI bill, having served as a naval communication officer in WWII. His amateur ham operating experience in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri came in handy in the Navy. After getting his electrical engineering degree at MIT, he went to New York City and worked on any number of interesting projects like cathode tubes and other technical stuff.  My dad had been painting (and writing?—I don’t really know when he started writing) since the war and he decided to pursue his art by getting an esthetics degree at NYU. One of his roommates in the city went home on weekends to visit his family in Roosevelt, New Jersey. My dad, then 24 years old, joined his roommate to get out of the city every now and again. And that is where my dad first saw my mom. She was a 13-year-old dark haired petite beauty playing table tennis (ping pong just doesn’t sound right for the 50s) when my dad couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Fortunately not much more happened at that point because she was so young.

My mom finished high school very young (those days skipping grades was not uncommon) and she went to Bard College at age 16. She got her bachelors degree in dance and then went to New York City to dance professionally. She joined the Henry Street Playhouse and studied and performed modern dance under Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis.

Mom and DadMy parents continued to see each other and actually lived together for a short time before they were married—if I remember correctly. Then on January 13, 1955, just a month before my mom was of legal age to marry (that would be 21 in those days), they were wedded. With the approval of her legal guardian—her mom—my mom and dad got married at the courthouse in New York City. My parents lived in a couple of places including Greenwich Village and the infamous “cold water flat” in the Lower East Side—way before it was so fashionable to live there. Then they moved to Roosevelt, New Jersey, were it all began, to start our family.

Community of family circa 1960sRoosevelt was a wonderful place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. Because it was my mom’s hometown, I had the luxury of having my grandmother and great grandmother living just a street away. And I also had a kind of second grandmother, my great aunt Ellie, who lived just around the corner. I loved to drop by their houses and get fed yummy food. Roosevelt became the spot for all of our extended family to visit for holidays and other events. I have fond memories of my many cousins and aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles and more partying in Aunt Ellie and Uncle Jack’s back yard under the cherry trees. That is the definition of community to me. I really haven’t had anything close to that since I was a kid.

Mueller Family Late 1970sMy mom and dad raised us in such a wonderful way and our house was filled with love, books, art, music and the political activism of the 60s. We even went on peace marches in DC. And together, my mom and dad were also puppeteers.  My mom became interested in women’s rights and decided to go back to school to get a bachelors degree in history before she went on to get her law degree, both at Rutgers. She was one of the only woman law students there and she got to study with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also probably the only female professor.

My dad worked at RCA for a number of years as an engineer and inventor (he holds several patents) and then at Bell Labs as a technical writer. Once my mom began practicing as an attorney, my dad became a househusband—again they were trendy before their time. Although these days we would have said he was a stay-at-home-dad. Throughout, he was always working as an artist and writer and always considered the intersection between science and art.  I loved woodworking with him in his basement workshop (see The Wonder Of Woodworking).

Mom & Dad's 60th Wedding Anniversary!My mom worked at The Legal Aid Society and then went out with a partner before she left and worked on her own legal practice. She was an early female entrepreneur, a feminist and worked on the counsel for the Black Panthers. Her work and perspective had a huge impact on me. I read Ms. Magazine from its inception and I have never wavered in calling myself a feminist and seeking equality in the workplace. Looking back I can see that that both my mom and my dad have had a tremendous influence on my whole life journey from education and political views to need for right-brain and left-brain work. I love structure and spontaneity, I am equally comfortable with business and science and arts and writing. I thank them both for that. And I thank them both for showing how to love and stay married for 60 years.

XOXO Rachel

The summer of love—cross-country ramblin’ with my man in 1985

They said if we could manage to not hate each other after spending the entire summer in a car driving cross-country, we surely were bound for marriage. And so begins the tale of our road trip. While I was in grad school, I desperately needed a break from my studies and decided to take the summer off. Generally speaking that is unheard of while you are working on your PHD and my advisor wasn’t too happy about it. Nonetheless, I knew that it was important for me so I went ahead with big plans. Andy—my boyfriend at the time—and I decided to take a long road trip across the country.

SunocoI have gone back and forth about what I feel about road trips over the years. I hadn’t really been on many road trips before that summer. There was the time when my parents and my brother and I drove in our green monster—our pastel-green van—to visit Grandma Dora in Florida when I was very young. I recall enjoying that childhood trip though I am not sure if my parents would say I was a happy camper. But I was game for a long trip with Andy and it was a cost-effective method to see the sites of the country. My parents made it even more cost-effective by giving us their Sunoco gas credit card and paying for all the gas we needed.

Good thing my parents gave us that credit card because at one point it turned out we needed to use it for another purchase at Sunoco—a new car battery. Yes, we had quite a few amusing and some not so amusing ventures on that trip. The car-battery tale worked out fine in the end and I remain grateful to my parents that they bankrolled the gas and the car battery.

Mount RushmoreWe began our trip from the west coast in Santa Cruz, California where I was in graduate studies. With maps from CAA (California Automobile Association) in hand and a pink highlighted route that we had marked before we left, we took off on the defining road trip of our lives. Because our plans were for a round-trip across the country, the route we selected was across the northern part of the US outbound and the southern states on our return. Along the way we intended to see important sites that we hadn’t visited before—like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park—and cities that perhaps we might live in one day—like New York, Seattle and Chicago. Our destination when we left California was my parent’s place in New Jersey where we knew we could remain and regroup for some time before heading westward.

I could probably write a novel-length memoir of the trip, we accomplished so many firsts and we experienced so many highs (and some lows). Several things remain vivid in my mind all these 29 years later. We thought to bring a bunch of long and gripping novels to read on the never-ending stretches of interstate highways. What a great idea! While one of us was driving, the other read aloud to pass the time. Not only did it pass the time, but also I don’t think I have ever enjoyed reading a book more. We took our time and discussed the characters and the plot live while we read together. There was Travels with Charlie, Lust for Life, and The Fountainhead. (For years afterwards, Andy read books to me in bed but we gave up when I kept on falling asleep—his voice just lulled me into slumber.)

About the size of our tentEach day we made plans for where we would stop and camp over night. CAA also supplied us with a book of camping locations of all varieties from private to park-operated. Remember, this was before anyone had mobile Internet access—actually this was before there was much in the way of the Internet in general, let alone mobile cellphones and Internet. When we arrived at the intended camping area, we’d give it a quick look to see if it seemed safe and then put up our teeny tiny backpacker’s tent for two that we purchased at Sierra Designs in Berkeley. We certainly could have used a larger tent since we had a car to lug it in but—no—we were somehow cooler for using the modest Flashlight II. Setting up a tent every night for weeks on end made us experts at getting that thing up in no time at all, even if it was dark out. Most of the places we stayed were good enough and not very memorable. But several spots stick out in my memory as simply amazing—and several as truly horrendous.

One of the most magical places we camped was in Big Sky country—Montana. We found a small National Forest campsite and pitched our tent as usual. Because it was so remote, there were plenty of signs posted that warned of bears. So we took the suggested precautions and made sure that food was secured in the trunk of our car (we didn’t need to stow the food up a tree as we would have if we were actually backpacking). Even with no food present we were visited by a bear that night and in that moment I really wished we had a larger tent—actually a larger tent made out of metal is more like it. We stayed absolutely still lying in our tent and fortunately the bear wandered off. That was excitement I hadn’t expected. What I also hadn’t expected was the beauty of the surroundings. Big Sky is such a great term for Montana—the sky is immense and breathtaking. And that campground wins as my best memory of a beautiful spot in the world.

Some of our other camping experiences weren’t so lovely. We encountered a stretch of rain, rain, rain and after pitching the already wet tent for several nights in a row during downpours, we hit the el cheapo motel—again on Mom and Dad’s dime. And then there were the campgrounds in the Texas area that scared the crap out of us so we kept on driving. Though I do have a fond memory of armadillos making a racket looking for food in the metal garbage cans somewhere in Texas. I think I managed to snap a cute photo of one of the critters. What strange beasts they are. But all in all I’d say we did pretty well with our campgrounds, with great thanks to our CAA campground booklet.

BeignetsWe are foodies, so one of the things that is kind of surprising but I guess not unexpected given our poor financial state was that we didn’t eat at many of the wonderful road food spots available in the hinterlands of the US. Most of the time we bought groceries and had such marvelous—well marvelous when you are hungry and on the road—and easy to transport items like bread and cheese. Although it is true that even bread was taken to new heights when we toasted our bagels over an open fire in Yellowstone while it was flurrying out in an unusual July storm. (That fluke cold front was also when our car battery went kaput.) When we did enjoy a meal out, breakfast was the choice. My fav memory is of the cheapest breakfast to be found in a little diner in East Madison, Wisconsin. Of course we did eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans and couldn’t miss the shakes and fries at The Varsity drive-in in Atlanta so food was not entirely ignored.

Dining in local joints while traveling gets greater attention these days and has for some time. But of all the trips I have taken with Andy over the years, our cross-country road trip remains most vivid of my memories and serves as an inflection point for our relationship. Yes, of course they were right—I did marry Andy and as that ramblin’ summer trip with my man proved, we were well suited for each other then. And we remain well suited and as in love today—if not more—as when we were young lovers on the road.

XOXO Rachel

Perfect Day

BeforeI love the song “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. I think I first got to know the song really well during the 2010 Winter Olympics when it was used in a promo where the snowboarder Shaun White is flying through the air. Yes, that looks like it would be the most perfect exhilarating experience soaring through the air and gliding on the snow. But that isn’t the kind of perfect day I am speaking about per se (though I probably would have a perfect day if I floated in the air on a snowboard as naturally as Shaun).

The perfect day I have in mind has to do with much more down to earth activities, literally. This past Saturday was one such perfect day. It was perfect first because it was a day spent completely with my love Andy. And another mark for perfection was the warm weather—as it turns out only a glimpse into the future of spring warmth because the next day it was frigid again. And it was perfect because we were in the garden all day enjoying mother earth. We finally had an opportunity to get into the garden to do early spring cleanup because most of the snow has melted (though not all).

The earth that was revealed was more ravaged than usual from the blistery winter we survived. So we got to work and nipped back overgrowth, snipped away dead growth from last year’s blooms and raked up all the miscellaneous detritus of the winter. We dragged leaves and branches and rocks and gravel and weeds to our garden pile in the woods. And we even groomed the Japanese maple and Hibiscus so that they will look perfect later in the summer. At the close of our session, we surveyed our work and beheld the before and after views of the garden. Yes, that was good enough to make it perfect, but it didn’t end there.

Amazing Yellow Bush Daisy!After a quick shower and a snack, we went to Stonecrop Gardens (http://www.stonecrop.org) for their early spring open house for members. Although very muddy, their outside gardens were already revealing some early signs of growth. Most of the spectacle, however, was in their conservatory and hothouses. We signed in and picked up the sheet that listed every plan on display with numbers so that we could follow along—all 627 of them! From tropical and unusual to just your run-of-the-mill garden plants like violets or begonia, the display was amazing (though nothing very ordinary about seeing violets or begonia in March). Yes, the perfect day continued.

To top it off, we had tickets to see for one of our favorite musicians, James Maddock (http://jamesmaddock.net/) at the Towne Crier Cafe (http://www.townecrier.com/). This is the third time we went to see James at the Towne Crier Cafe but this time the event was closer to us because they moved to nearby Beacon, NY. The venue serves dinner as well so we were seated at a table for two in a great center spot near the stage (the place is small enough that all the seats are great). After a little wine, a lot of great food and an abundance of shared conversation with my husband, we enjoyed the concert. As I listened to James sing, I felt so lucky. With the words of Lou Reed in mind and the actual voice of James Maddock in my ears—what a perfect day!

XOXO Rachel

Relating to “Relationship”

Dad and MeThis past weekend I went to a 2-day intensive course on coaching people in relationships and my first words are “Wow!”  Now, it is certainly the case that every coaching and leadership course that I have taken from The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) or related group elicited the “Wow!” response from me. But I think this one was a different type of “Wow!”  The course was held by ORSC, an offshoot of CTI so there is some overlap in the style of training.  Lots of experiential learning, lots of immediate connection and closeness to the others in the course and lots of emotion and introspection!  But what I hadn’t really thought about so much before going to the class was that relationship is most of what life is about.  We are in relationship to our parents, children, spouse, friends, and any and all business colleagues.  And guess what, we are even in relationship to ourselves and—this might seem to be pushing it—we are in relationship with things like money, food or you name it.  So the “wow!” factor is that this course applies to all of my life and everyone’s life.

I signed up for the class because as I have been working with couples designing their wedding ceremonies, it became obvious to me that I had a wonderful opportunity to coach them about their relationship.  For over a decade I have been coaching individuals in business and life coaching.  Being a celebrant is in so many ways just an extension of my coaching work.  I already ask the couples to explore their relationship so that I can capture their connection in the written words of the ceremony.  How fortunate that I get to work with couples when they are just beginning their married life together.  My hope is that I’ll get them thinking about their relationship in a way that leads to them creating a more fulfilling life together.

My FamilyWe take for granted so much in relationship and I find that rarely in life do we step back and actually discuss the relationship.  Sure we talk all the time with whoever we are in relationship with.  Yet for most people it is a rarity that they set aside time to talk “about their relationship”.  Some couples do that naturally but most often the only ones who take a step back and look at the big picture are those who are having troubles in the relationship and seek council.  I suppose it is not a startling concept to consider talking about the relationship before there is great conflict.  Perhaps what is startling is how few couples (and I use the term couples to refer to ANY relationship) do that.

So I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that everyone have a look at the relationships they have.  Make time to have conversations with whoever you are in relationship and you will be greatly rewarded with understanding and connection (and love depending on the affiliation).  If you are having big conflict, consider having a coach or therapist facilitate.  I certainly plan to have those conversations now that I have some relationship coaching training under my belt.  At the very least, I plan to have a heartfelt conversation with myself about what I want and need in my relationship with life.

XOXO Rachel

Tales of the City—Tales of Community

Kidd Hall community 1984While I was in College at UC Berkeley in the early 80s, we read the San Francisco Chronicle in our cooperative house in North Berkeley. My friend at the time (now my sweet husband) Andy read the column, Tales of the City, a fictionalized serial by Armistead Maupin without fail. I read it from time to time but I really got into it when in 1993 the TV mini-series of the same name appeared. Andy and I were married by then and living in New York City. I was glued to the show and could hardly wait for each installment. I was bereft when it was over if I can use such a strong word to describe the relationship I felt for the characters in the program. Even thinking about it I get a strange almost queasy feeling in my stomach and as I try to uncover why, I think the key is “loss” and probably as in “loss of community”. I have had the same unsettled feeling in my gut several—only several—other times.

One of the most remarkable memories of that feeling was when I was in jury duty in Manhattan in the early 90s.  Like clockwork (before the NY Jury Reform of 1996 jury duty was indeed clockwork every two years because the jury pool was so small due to a long list of exempt professionals) I would receive my notice to show up for jury duty at the courthouse in lower Manhattan. Going to jury duty turned out to be an amazing experience for me in a number of ways. Fairly new to living in New York City at the time, it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know a different part of the city from where I worked (Midtown) and lived (Upper West Side). Lunchtime, I used every second possible to explore neighboring Chinatown and Little Italy. Food was a big draw and I had wonderful soups and noodles and cannoli and yummy ice cream in flavors that were new to me at the time like red bean and green tea.

Medicine Wheels community in Sebastopol, CABut what jury duty in New York City really left me with was an astonishing group experience. Because I was so interested in the jury process and also such a “goodie two shoes” that I would never have even considered trying to say something during “voire dire” to be excused, I was always selected for a case (and I still am to this day). One such case was a drug possession and sales trial. As the juror was selected, I didn’t really take too much in about each potential juror. But when we were then whisked away to the jury room to prepare to hear the testimony, I began an intense and speedy induction into a community of jurors.

As we went around the table and formally introduced ourselves, the interesting and creative people in the group amazed me. We had an opera singer, a professor, a music producer, and a number of business people from different disciplines including myself—to name a few. I felt an instant rapport with almost everyone and we had what turned out to be a week-long intense relationship. We went to lunch together, we talked of life (but not the case until deliberation) and we became so close that when I said goodbye, I felt such a painful loss I had rarely felt before and infrequently since. I am pretty certain that feeling was a visceral emotion of loss of connection. As awful as it can be, I think it is also wonderful because it means that I was so closely connected to a group of individuals that its loss was almost overwhelming.

Community of family circa 1960sIn today’s New York Times Book Review I receive word that Armistead Maupin’s concluding series of books comes to a close with his final novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. Though I have never read the book series (perhaps it is time) just reading the review brought all these thoughts of community and connection flooding to me. It brought back memories of the amazing community of dear friends I lived with at Kidd Hall at Berkeley.  And it reminds me that it is time to foster and create more community in my life, even if the ache of loss is a possibility.

XOXO Rachel

The look of love

My favorite photos are of people gazing at other people with the look of love.  The look of love is in their eyes.  There is such a joyful feeling conveyed in their eyes and a sense that they know something that no one else in the world knows about their loved one.  I enjoy looking through photos that I have collected over the years of friends and family members and I find myself grinning from ear to ear whenever I see a photo with the look of love.  I have noticed that there are some strong similarities between photos.  One of the most striking similarities is between a photo of my brother, newly wed and lovingly looking at his wife and one of my dad looking at my mom when they were also newly wed.  My brother and my dad have that same look of awe and pure happiness that they each have this beautiful and brilliant woman in their life.

When I was in grad school at UC Santa Cruz, I had a photo of Andy and me that I kept pinned up on the board in my cubicle at the office.  The loving look that Andy had for me and I for him caused no end of teasing from my grad school colleagues.  One day I came in to my office to find a comic strip tacked up next to our picture.  In it Matt Groening’s characters Binky and Sheba are embracing each other exactly like Andy and I are posed and the caption reads, “Disgusting isn’t it?”  Whoever put the comic there was just envious of our deep love no doubt.  And I understand how to those outside the bubble of love the gawking might appear impenetrable and stupid as the word gawking implies.  But to me there will never be too many photographs of couples staring at each other with the look of love.

The look of love is not, however, confined to romantic couples.  Some of my favorite photos are of my mom or dad with my brother or me.  The look from parent to child conveys not only love but also a sense of pride and adoration.  The look is prevalent on baby’s faces when their parents gaze at them in their earliest days of life.  This look of love is not particularly surprising because from a biological necessity it serves a baby to attach to their caregiver.  It makes it seem so clinical, but to me, the more I gather evidence that our mind and brain – physiology and psychology – are closely mapped (see also Mind and brain: connection not only “feels” good, it is good for you), the more I feel that I understand the human experience and understand why I have such a physical reaction to the look of love.  How could I, or anyone, not have such a reaction?